College football betting: Don't overvalue bowl eligibility

·4-min read

If there's one thing you should know about the sportsbooks, it's that every single angle is covered by oddsmakers. Statistical mismatches, injuries, trends, motivation; it's all already accounted for. That's why beating the sportsbook consistently is so hard. If the sportsbooks get it wrong originally, the market will quickly correct itself anyway.

With the final week of the college football regular season now upon us, a lot will be made about teams becoming bowl-eligible. "This team will be motivated because it needs to win to become bowl-eligible." Is this a sound handicap? Is there value in backing five-win teams during the final week of the college football regular season?

Have bowl games been devalued?

There are 82 bowl berths available in 2021. Of the 130 FBS teams, over 63% of them will be involved in the college football postseason. Currently there are 72 bowl-eligible teams. There are 20 teams that must win their final games this weekend in order to become bowl-eligible. Generally, a team must win at least six games to become bowl-eligible. Five of those wins must come against other FBS schools. 

Bowl games used to be very important for programs. A 7-8 win season with a bowl victory would be considered a good season by most teams. It would also help with recruiting and help push a program forward. Players received perks and actually wanted to play in bowl games. Coaches have bonuses in their contracts attached to bowl games and bowl game victories. 

MORGANTOWN, WV - OCTOBER 02: West Virginia Mountaineers defensive lineman Dante Stills (55) leads the Mountaineers on to the field prior to the college football game between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the West Virginia Mountaineers on October 2, 2021, at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
West Virginia will become bowl-eligible if it can defeat Kansas this weekend. (Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Now, it seems like bowl games are an afterthought for many programs. Are there too many bowls? Has the College Football Playoff devalued all the other bowls? We're handicapping motivation here, but are these teams even that motivated to become bowl-eligible?

Is backing five-win teams profitable?

Since 2005, teams that enter the final week of the college football regular season with five wins are 105-107 straight up. These teams are fighting for the right to go to a bowl game and have all the motivation in the world, but they're losing more often than they win. 

Straight-up results might not be the fairest way to judge these games. There's significant talent disparities across college football, so even if a team gives everything it's got, it might not win outright. However, a desperate team should at least cover the spread at a high rate, right?

Wrong. Five-win teams are 108-100-4 against the spread when playing for bowl-eligibility in the final week of the regular season. A winning record? Yes. However, you need to hit 52.4% of your bets in order to be a profitable bettor. Teams fighting for bowl eligibility are covering just 51.9% of the time, meaning you're losing money backing this narrative. 

Favorites in this spot are performing slightly better, going 69-23 straight up. They are 50-40-2 against the spread, good for a 55.6% win rate. That's a bingo, right? Not so fast. It seems like the oddsmakers have caught up and backing five-win favorites is no longer a winning bet. Since 2014, favorites are 21-25-1 in this spot. 

What's on tap this week

As mentioned earlier, 20 teams have the opportunity to win this week and become bowl-eligible. However, there can only be a maximum of 16 teams to clinch a bowl berth this weekend as four games feature two five-win teams going head-to-head. 

These four games will see the winner become bowl-eligible:

Florida State at Florida: Florida is a 2.5-point favorite against its in-state rivals. Florida State has been playing much better of late while Florida just fired Dan Mullen. 

Maryland at Rutgers: Rutgers is a 1.5-point underdog at home against Maryland. I really do believe that Greg Schiano would love to go to a bowl game in the second season of his second tenure as his Rutgers program rises up from the ashes of college football. 

Charlotte at Old Dominion: Old Dominion is an 8.5-point favorite over Charlotte as one of these Conference USA teams will go bowling. 

Middle Tennessee State at Florida Atlantic: Another Conference USA team will clinch a bowl berth in this one as Florida Atlantic is a 3.5-point favorite.

The rest of the games on this week's slate in which bowl eligibility is on the line are listed below. The five-win team is in bold. 

  • Pittsburgh (-13) at Syracuse

  • Virginia Tech at Virginia (-7)

  • Tulane at Memphis (-6)

  • Tulsa at SMU (-6.5)

  • TCU at Iowa State (-14.5)

  • West Virginia (-15.5) at Kansas

  • UTSA (-11.5) @ North Texas

  • Buffalo at Ball State (-6.5)

  • Fresno State (-7.5) at San Jose State

  • Texas A&M (-6) at LSU

  • Coastal Carolina (-14.5) at South Alabama

  • Troy at Georgia State (-6.5)

Historical results are from The Action Network

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